The Unique Contribution of Music Education is…

Occasionally when school districts face budget shortfalls and are forced to re-examine the value of their offerings to students, the place of music (and the other arts) in the curriculum is threatened. No one debates the necessity of instruction in language literacy, math, or science, but some inevitably wonder if schools can afford to have music programs. Obviously this causes music teachers much consternation. Their responses in such situations range in effectiveness. In the worst accounts I’ve heard, music educators defending their jobs, rather than the essential role of the arts in a complete education. At spring concerts or PTA meetings, a teacher say something like, “The proposal out there would eliminate six music teaching positions. These are people with families who have provided years of fine service to the school district.”

As true as this may be, it doesn’t make a compelling case in a time of budgetary “belt-tightening” and educational prioritizing. Some people—school administrators, parents, and other stakeholders—see music education as a frill. An enjoyable and enriching experience for some students…but not something that schools MUST provide. Those of us who have experienced the transformative power of music don’t respond well to it being sold short in this way. We know music belongs in schools and believe that eliminating if from the curriculum amounts to educational malpractice. But what do we make of those who take the “music as frill” perspective? Are they ignorant or just misinformed? Most importantly, what can we—the musicians, music teachers, and arts advocates—do to protect the place of music in schools?

Unfortunately many in the field of music education have seemed to desperately grasp at straws to defend it. They may claim that “music makes you smarter,” or that it produces more conscientious and productive members of society (shortly after the heyday of bank robberies, some music advocates adopted the slogan “Teach them to blow horns, and they won’t blow safes“). Former students may credit music education for teaching them discipline and teamwork. Other testimonials share how school music provided a place to fit in socially and build relationships with peers. Of course all of these things can be true (well, except perhaps for the one about blowing safes), but I’m not sure that they really help the cause of music education. You don’t hear other educators justifying math and science classes for their contributions to students’ self-discipline and interpersonal skills. These classes are staples in the curriculum because most believe that the subject matter itself is important for everyone.

In contrast, it’s much more common for people in athletics to praise sports participation for its contributions to character building and social development. So if a school music program is comparable to an athletic program, is that a problem? I think so. First, it point out that these educational by-products (e.g., responsibility, teamwork) are not unique to music. But more troubling is how similarities with sports can threaten music’s place in the curriculum. Athletics—not to be confused with its distant cousin, physical education—are squarely part of extracurricular activities. It’s rare for a full-time position in a school to have the sole assignment for coaching sports. Yet, some music teachers choose to run their classes like coaches run their teams. Just to be clear, I love competitive sports and think young people gain much from participating in them. But I’m not in favor of having Volleyball Team or Wrestling Squad become classes that meet during the school day. There are important reasons why sports teams and other enriching clubs and activities happen outside the curriculum. When school music operates more similarly to these groups than to courses like math and English, then I fear they are in jeopardy of being relegated to extracurricular status. Someone thinking only from a budgetary standpoint might wonder: why employ a full-time teacher if student music groups can be covered by a part-timer, say, a musician from the community? Or perhaps there’s a teacher of an academic subject with enough musical background who’ll work with ensembles afterschool for an extra-duty stipend (this is the scenario of the TV show Glee, in which a Spanish teacher leads the swing choir-type glee club). Some school districts have already gone this direction and moved all performing ensembles to after school.

Music teachers would do well to embrace the expectations placed on “core” academic subjects. Music course offerings should be part of a well-organized curriculum, and each class should make known its musical learning objectives. Teachers should focus their efforts on guiding all students to individually attain those objectives, with publicly-shared group performances happening as an outgrowth of this learning. Student grades should reflect attainment of learning objectives, and not be based on things like attendance and attitude…can you imagine if math teachers graded on attendance and attitude!

I believe the most compelling reasons for music’s inclusion in a school curriculum are those centered around the nature of music. The main purpose of the arts is expression. In fact, the arts can be effectively defended because of their unique ability to provide people with a means of exercising creativity and self-expression. I would like to see music education advocacy much more focused on this. Of course, we in the profession must then be sure to teach in a way that truly gives students opportunities to be creative and express themselves. In many cases, this will require teachers to relinquish some of their decision making power and put it into the hands of students. It is difficult to convincingly promote music education for its creative and expressive benefits to students if their experiences are dominated by the rehearsal of other people’s music, under the strict direction of a teacher who prescribes exactly how it should be performed. Again, this latter approach sounds more like a sports team—a coach creates the game plan, and runs team practice to prepare for the next contest. In contrast, music education can give artistic decision making to students. They can engage in experiences to develop their creativity by composing original music. They can collaborate in small groups with peers in which they make decisions about how to prepare a piece of music for performance. They can learn to improvise so they can readily express themselves. And this approach doesn’t mean abandoning large ensembles, which provide such great musical experiences and learning opportunities that cannot be had otherwise. But it may mean forsaking the exclusive dedication of class time to teacher-led rehearsal.

I’m pleased to know many music teachers who teach like this everyday. And I hope that the profession will see more and more of them as we move into the future. Their educationally sound practices should further solidify music as a basic subject that every school will want to offer to all of its students.


11 responses to “The Unique Contribution of Music Education is…

  1. Well put! I have seen far too many articles that start like yours but then simply conclude with an unquestioned defense of the most traditional music ed status quo. Instead, you are actually arguing that we offer concrete answers to questions of music’s value and change our priorities correspondingly!

    I agree we should focus on creativity, expression, and emotional value, and other real inherent values of music. But accepting this is threatening to some because it brings up questions of whether note-reading, traditional techniques, or even traditional instruments are necessary.

    If your phys-ed analogy is valid, then the music curriculum needs to be about specific strategies for using music for psychological health, applied expression, general sense of rhythm, creativity, artistry etc. The specific rigorous execution of “other people’s music” in orchestra/band/choir etc. could be extra-curricular to the same extent as football and basketball are…

    • Aaron – Thanks for your comment. I think the phys-ed (vs. sports) analogy has a lot to offer us in music education as we examine ourselves as a profession. And that’s ultimately what my goal is. I don’t think much comes from simply bemoaning society’s lack of appreciation for music education. If we ask why too few people support music education, it’s impossible to avoid placing some of the blame with ourselves. I figure that’s a good place to start.


  2. Nice post. I believe that Music education can and should extend outside of academia. In this age of information availability it is imperative that degreed and passionate music educators take advantage of technology and present quality products that encourage people to continue their (music) learning past high school. This ‘market’ has great potential and can in fact become a saving factor for future in-school music programs. Follow this link for an interesting take on this idea. Keep up the good work:

    • Eugene – I share your enthusiasm for fostering music making in adults beyond high school. In addition to making formal “school-like” programs available to more adults, I’d like to see our high school graduates better equipped to independently guide their own music learning. And as you say, technology is an important vehicle for this. Thanks for offering this comment!


  3. Some really good thoughts here! I agree with many of the things you’re saying, and I especially appreciate the idea that if we in music ed need to give more of the ownership and decision-making to students to allow for creative expression. That truly is one of the most unique things that music has to offer the school curriculum.

    Unfortunately, I fear that it is going to take a lot to change the current culture of many music teachers/directors. I had my first experience in talking to my freshman and sophomore music ed majors about informal and non-formal learning, but some were hesitant to embrace the idea in which they wouldn’t be the director in charge. In fact, many still talk about the need for discipline and control in their future ensembles, which I imagine is a product of the programs from which many of them come from. I’d love to hear more about how you encourage undergraduates to begin adopting some of these views. Perhaps a future post? 🙂

    • Julie – Thank you for this comment and for the mention in your blog post of Dec. 1. I’ve had the same experience with young music teachers seeking to gain more control of their classes. I suppose if one is committed to a traditional rehearsal, then it is important that ensemble members are quiet and attentive to the director. As you say, this culture is pretty strongly entrenched among many. Perhaps our best approach to convincing them otherwise is to give them opportunities to experience for themselves how non-rehearsal activities can enhance their musicianship. I think the things you learn about music—from, say, composing it, arranging it, moving to it—would be brought back to rehearsal settings. Seems to me that with better musicians, less rehearsal would be needed to achieve the same performance results. Perhaps a bit idealistic, but I’ve never met a teacher who’s expressed regret over giving students more opportunities for artistic creativity and self-expression.


  4. Bob,
    Wow. I have read through this post multiple times now because I feel there is so much in it to digest that is really, really important. I’ve been working a lot more with college music majors this past year and have been amazed at how few skills the students I’m working with have. Now I know that sounds harsh, but I don’t believe that it’s the students’ fault, really. I wonder if a large reason for this is this tendency for schools to approach music in this extra-curricular way that you mentioned. If the majority of students, prior to college, get their music “education” through ensemble rehearsals in an atmosphere of “Glee” it is no wonder they don’t know what to do when it comes to figuring out how to do something with music on their own. I walk the practice room hallways all the time and hear so much practicing that has very little skill, very little purpose and it pains me to know that they are wasting so much time. And as a new teacher at the college level I have been surprised by how shocked the students look when I start to teach them very practical skills that have to do with learning music. After one semester they are just now starting to realize that I mean business and not just to be a tyrannical teacher but because I want them to be able to play their hearts out with complete confidence, understanding, and undistracted passion.

    Perhaps if in earlier music education (pre-college) music educators did as you suggest – they have a clear curriculum, clear goals and objectives, and purposefully teach in a way that gives students the skills they need to truly become understanding musicians. Being musical and expressive is important, yes, but alone it won’t get a student very far, at least not in my mind.

    Thank you for this post, Bob. Very thought provoking, as always.


    • Erica – Thanks for your comments. Knowing what I do about you from your own blog, your insights mean a lot. Sounds like you’re really getting at the issue of musical independence…young musicians managing their own learning. Plan it, organize it, carry it out, and reflect on it. I suppose it’s no wonder students don’t learn this in situations where the performance goals of the group take precedence over the needs of individual learners. But take heart! There are many music teachers out there who “get it” and are giving their students the experiences they need to truly grow their musicianship. I surely count you among them!


  5. Great post. Technology has come so far. It\\\’s amazing that anyone with the right beats makers software can create pumping beats and music right on their own computer.

    It really makes it possible for anyone to become a music mixer or DJ.

  6. Pingback: Music as an Elixir for Your Brain | Being musical. Being human.

  7. I read this article completely concerning
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